Typically, the beginning of the presidential debate season is highly anticipated. There is endless hype and speculation about what might happen. The stakes, we are told, have never been higher.
However, heading into the first of three 2020 presidential debates on Tuesday, the stakes are relatively low. Outside circumstances — not what is said in the debate — are likely to matter a lot more, both to the everyday lives of Americans and in determining the campaign’s outcome.
No matter what promises are made during Tuesday’s 90-minute debate, there will still be a pandemic raging, unpredictable school schedules, more unemployment claims, wildfires burning, a nasty Supreme Court nomination just getting underway in the Senate, and more protests for racial justice in the streets.
Given that these outside events are driving politics and not the candidates, the debate season is set up to feature a series of soon-to-be-forgotten statements and zingers.
Possibly the only way these debates will truly matter in a big way is if they veer badly off the rails — to a place that is just not good for the nation, broadly speaking.
Here are three ways that could happen:
The debate becomes entirely personal
As mentioned above, there are serious times. Roughly two-thirds of voters tell pollsters the nation is on the wrong track. They wouldn’t be wrong if they tuned into the debate looking for leadership and a plan on how to get things back on the right track.
But as Trump showed in the 2016 debates, he has a way of making things personal and not about policy. This week, two Republican Senate chairmen released a report into Hunter Biden’s involvement with a Ukrainian energy company when Joe Biden, his father, was vice president.
The report concluded that Hunter Biden did make a lot of money and may have made the Obama administration’s efforts more complicated in rooting out corruption in the country, but that there was no quid pro quo or any policy changes because of his employment.
Also in the news in recent days: Trump’s middle son, Eric, will be deposed in New York before the election as part of a criminal probe into whether the president’s real estate company committed tax fraud.
Leaving aside all the details, if this debate gets entirely personal, then here is what it is not: a debate about the future of the country.
Neither candidate agrees to accept the results of the election
You already know where Trump stands. When he was asked directly this week, he wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses.
“We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said during a news conference.
There has been a lot written about the unprecedented constitutional crisis that would exist if a losing Trump didn’t leave the White House. There has been less focus, however, on the fact that Hillary Clinton said recently that Biden shouldn’t concede the election, either.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox News, released a list of topics he will want to explore during the debate. While there were no topics on the personal business lives of the candidates’ children, there was a section on election integrity.
Given that, there could easily be a question about whether each would accept the results of the election. If both say no, it could be a hair-on-fire moment for American democracy.
Biden makes a horrible gaffe about race
America in late September 2020 is grappling with a reckoning on race that is touching every aspect of the country. Some protesters in the street — and many at home — believe Trump is a racist and have ample evidence to back that up. But what if Biden says something cringe-worthy, or worse, on race this Tuesday?
Biden has his own complicated political history on race. One could see Trump using the words of Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, against Biden over school busing. Trump may also say that Biden’s crime bill in the 1990s disproportionately led to the incarceration of Black people. If he did make that attack, the data support Trump.
Biden could mess up even a highly practiced response.
After all, Biden has not had a great debate since the presidential contest began. He is also known as a gaffe machine. Earlier, he couldn’t even get a debate closing statement on how to text his campaign. If Biden somehow makes a mistake on a discussion of race, it could be a bad moment for the country: the next president, Trump or Biden, unable to meaningfully engage with a nationwide push for racial justice.